Over the course of much of Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s tenure, he has not been shy about utilizing the 53rd or so roster spot on the team for a player who does not necessarily have a define role on offense, defense, or in the coverage or blocking aspects of special teams.
The most recent incarnation of such a player was Dri Archer, the team’s third-round draft pick during the 2014 NFL Draft, a 5’8”, 173-pound college running-back-slash-wide-receiver whose calling card was his elite, sub-4.3 speed. The team evidently became enamored with that aspect of his game and his potential as a return threat in spite of his lack of a defined offensive role at the professional level.
As transpired events would reveal, what we can say at the very least is that the Steelers viewed this selection as a failure, given that they opted to release Archer during the middle of the 2015 season when the opportunity arose to claim veteran return man Jacoby Jones off waivers, which turned out to be an even bigger mistake.
Jones, too, was released by the end of the season, which at least should mean that that mercurial roster spot that exists for a player whose essentially sole contribution is as a return specialist is now open once again, and it will be interesting to see whether or not they indeed attempt to fill that spot with such a player, even if it has not worked out since they had Stefan Logan in 2009.
It is interesting to note that, according to Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider, Tomlin has an affirmed preference for having offensive players set deep to return kicks, and a quick reminiscence of those who have returned kicks for the Steelers over the course of the past several years—and those who didn’t, such as Brandon Boykin—would certainly bear that out.
I am not entirely certain of the motivation behind this, though perhaps the most likely explanation is simply because offensive players are more accustomed to both running with and holding onto football, since the only opportunity that defensive players have to do so is in the event of a turnover.
Nevertheless, there is at least one notable returner among the Steelers’ confirmed pre-draft visitors, Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones, whom Wexell notes posted a 12.5-yard average as a punt returner for the defending NCAA champions.
Although fourth-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton has ultimately slid into that kick returner role in each of the past two seasons due in part to ineffectiveness and necessity, it would seem unlikely that he will be given that role again this year, particularly in light of Martavis Bryant’s suspension, which will require him to take on a bigger role on offense.
But the Steelers’ almost laser-sharp focus on a defensive draft—all but three of their known pre-draft visitors have been on the defensive side of the ball—it may seem less likely that the team adds a returner that Tomlin would actually use as a returner during the 2016 NFL Draft. Or will perhaps he change his stance on the matter?